Finding Dankmar Adler in Chicago

Photo of Dankmar Adler taken sometime before his death. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Dankmar Adler, that genius of acoustical engineering, was born on July 3, 1844—one hundred seventy-three years ago, today. The Chicago History Museum fêted him, but it’s well possible that if you’re not a Chicagoan, or not an architecture fan,1 you’ve never heard of him. He was an acoustic genius, the acoustics consultant for Carnegie Hall2; the synagogue he built for his father would become the birthplace of gospel. He elevated Sullivan’s lacy architectural fantasies to genius levels after himself bringing Sullivan on, but after an economic downturn, Sullivan would never let him return to the practice, damaging both men, rather irreparably.3 And, as is far too often the case, much of his work has been torn down—but, to our fortune, much of it remains, too. Here are three of those Chicago survivors.

Auditorium Theatre & Building (Roosevelt University)

The Auditorium Building, as seen from Congress across Michigan. Image by Wikipedian Victor Grigas, 30 June 2012.

By the time Roosevelt University bought the Auditorium Building for $1, it had really been through the wringer. Now, slowly but surely, it’s being restored to its original glory, or at least something close. (And it is really, really beautiful—probably the nicest building in which anyone could go to college. Just saying.) The theatre is stunning, a work of architectural and acoustical genius—it is, in fact, the reason Adler got that job as a consultant to Carnegie Hall, and is frequently studied by concert hall architects even now. I like to think that Adler and Sullivan, who built it with dreams of egalitarian glory, would be pleased to know that the building now houses a college based on social justice for all. You’ll find it at 430 S. Michigan, kitty-corner (and a couple blocks) across from the Art Institute, and you’ll likely know it even if you’ve never seen it before: it’s been in its share of movies.

A photo of the Auditorium Theatre stage, 1890. Library of Congress Historic Buildings Survey photo by JW Taylor. Image from Wikimedia Commons

Pilgrim Baptist Church, Bronzeville

In better days: Pilgrim Baptist Church, 1964. Historic American Buildings Survey photo by Harold Allen. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Pilgrim Baptist is one of the saddest of our sad tales of architectural despair, as well as one I’ve covered several times: it was nearly destroyed in a fire, careless roofers destroying the building that was once a synagogue (Kehilath Anshe Ma’ariv Synagogue) and then the birthplace, thanks to its music director, of gospel. I still hope that, some day in the future, someone will bring it back to life. It deserves to have music lift its rafters, not fire. Meanwhile, it sits,4 a despairing hulk, at 3300 S. Indiana, on the corner of Indiana and Martin Luther King Drive, just a bit away from the lake.

Ebenezer Missionary Baptist Church

Ebenezer Missionary Baptist Church. 2016 photo by Jim Roberts. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

I know Ebenezer Missionary Baptist5 a little better than I know some of Adler’s work: my mother performs in it often enough to be well-versed in its acoustics, still crystalline after nearly 120 years. This is a late Adler, built after his split with Sullivan, and once again originally a synagogue (Isaiah Temple, once upon a time), and it’s gospel’s birthplace, or at least its childhood home. My mother has said the building runs towards the spare (I don’t know if others would agree with her), but her focus is, and always will be, on the voice of the building, and the voice it gives her instrument, and, as was Adler’s way, Ebenezer Missionary’s voice is still clear, all these years later. You’ll find it at 4501 S. Vincennes, also in Bronzeville.

Ebenezer Missionary Baptist Church

Ebenezer Missionary Baptist Church, 2015 image by John W. Iwanskifrom Flickr.

There are a few more Adler buildings throughout Chicago—some churches, a few remnants of the Adler and Sullivan stock exchange at the Art Institute—enough to give one a taste, as it were, of Adler’s rather extraordinary mind for sound waves. They’re all worth a visit, right down to the rather incredible room, lifted directly from the stock exchange and set down in the Art Institute for anyone to see, as long as they can find it. (I finally went in; naturally I recommend it to others.)

So here’s to Dankmar Adler, Jewish immigrant,  genius engineer and architect, whose works became cradles of a great new American music, and whose buildings remain, as they have always been, spaces of great and pure acoustic beauty, created by a man with an understanding of sound to be filled with music and with life.


1 And how can one be a Chicagoan and not an architecture buff?
2 Notes from both “Origins of Modern Architecture,” fall 2008, and “Origins of Civic and Commercial Architecture,” spring 2009, both taught at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago by Timothy Wittman.
3 Ibid.
4 There was a recent attempt to tear the church down; it failed to acquire a permit. I continue to hope that Pilgrim Baptist will, one day soon, come back from the edge of the grave.
5 There is a lot of information out there about Ebenezer, because it is a well-loved building. Here are a few sites:

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Progenitor of Towers: William Le Baron Jenney and the Skyscraper

The skyline Jenney made possible: Chicago Skyline at Sunrise, by Daniel Schwen. 18 April 2009

Chicago is a city of (architectural) firsts, a city where architecture is a fount of civic pride, where it is, indeed, a spectator sport.1 We’ve got the first of the tall(est) skyscrapers designed by a woman, Jeanne Gang’s spectacular, undulating Aqua;2 we’ll soon have the second, in Gang’s building-to-come, Vista Tower.3 (I can’t even tell you how excited I am. The tallest building conceived and designed by a woman, right here in Chicago!) Before we could get to the tallest building in the world designed by a woman (a title which will, no doubt, constantly shift in the years to come, as more women climb higher in the field), somebody had to invent the skyscraper.

We don’t have Vista yet, so here’s Aqua! Photo by George Showman. From Wikimedia Commons; originally posted to Flickr.

A lot of pieces had to come together for that invention. First of all, we needed to accidentally burn a city down, because there is, quite literally, nothing like it for inspiring all sorts of architectural brilliance (and contortions). Further, we had to burn it down so we realized that it would burn down, and we could have an architect learn how to build fire-proof buildings, which gets ever more important the higher up they go.4 We had to have an economic crash, of course–what would America be without those?–that would drive people to “look to Chicago as their hope,” since we had burned ourselves down and were busily rising from our own ashes–and then we had to have housing for those folks who came to join us, and rebuild with us.We absolutely, positively had to have elevators, because who in the world wants to climb eight or ten or twelve or ninety flights of stairs? It’s more than just this, however: elevators are, in fact, one of the four essential skyscraper criteria:6

  1. Height (this varies, sometimes a lot, by source–we’ll just go with really tall)7
  2. Metal skeleton frame
  3. Vertical transit (aka elevators)
  4. Fireproof.

And, voilà. If it’s missing any one of these, it isn’t actually a skyscraper.

The Chicago Tribune, 11 October 1871. Wikimedia Commons.

Okay, so we’ve got our criteria. We’ve burned down a city, leaving thousands of folks homeless (and destitute), and hundreds dead. We’re industrious, because that is kind of our thing, and so we’re already busily rebuilding–the hell with a fire, time to raise a second city, better than the first! And we’ve got tons of people coming our way, since we’re rebuilding and we must have jobs. This is clearly great, but we’ve gotta put people somewhere, hence extra apartment buildings. We’re building up, since we kinda need space–though it should be noted that we are immensely lucky: our lots are bigger by far than New York City’s, giving our skyline an entirely different vibe, and enabling all our atmospheric alleys.

Jenney, severely cropped. Wikimedia Commons.

The hero of this particular story–the first guy to build the first real skyscraper, the progenitor, as it were, of Gang’s Aqua and her Vista–is one William Le Baron Jenney, from back in the day when one had a two-word middle name just cuz. Jenney was kind of our hero (or at least one of them–we all adored Goldberg for standing up to nasty old Meis van der Rohe, and Wight for coming up with fireproofing, and a hundred others), back in architecture history. He paved the way, making it possible for us to go up, and up, and up again.

Garfield Park, 2013. By Wikipedian peterson.jon. Wikimedia Commons.

Jenney’s a pretty cool guy, actually. He wasn’t just the progenitor of skyscrapers, though one may think that is quite enough for the average mortal to take as an epitaph; instead, he was also a landscape architect, one who learned his trade at school (École Centrale  des Arts et Manufacutres, today known as the École Central de Paris) and honed it in the bloody, brutal battlefields of the American Civil War. He apparently thought our good Chicago prairie sucked (so does my mother; obviously I beg to disagree), but nonetheless created the original designs for the West Parks.9 (Unfortunately, the designs weren’t completely followed–there are always budget crises in Chicago.10) Jenney didn’t design in a vacuum: he appealed to, and got advice from, Fredrick Law Olmsted, the greatest contemporary (at the time) American  landscape architect.11

The Home Insurance Building, sometime after 1884. Photo by the Chicago Architectural Photography Company. Wikimedia Commons.

But, as nice as Central Park (aka Garfield Park, because we are NOT New York, just fyi) is, there’s a reason Jenney is the skyscraper guy. It’s a bittersweet title: we’ve torn down so many of his buildings, destroying our legacy faster even than it goes up. Jenney’s first real skyscraper (well, okay, it wasn’t very tall by today’s standards–merely a highrise, according to Emporis) was the Home Insurance Building, which once stood “at the northeast corner of LaSalle and Adams” and was not only the first building to meet all our criteria but was, indeed, the first to be called a skyscraper, anywhere.12 It has, as my notes remind me, a metal skeleton; a terracotta exoskeleton, making it fireproof; (at the time) fabulous height, rising 10 and soon after 12 stories; and vertical transit–all coming together to form the world’s first skyscraper. Nearly everything, from the elevators to the metal skeleton, was new technology. It was a brave new building for a city rising from its own ashes…and we tore it down in 1931.

Leiter I Building, 1963. (Demolished 1972.) Photo from the Historic American Buildings Survey, by Cervin Robinson. Wikimedia Commons.

Obviously I have strong feelings about historic preservation. However, as exciting as the Home Insurance Building was, it fell between historic cracks, with elements of load-bearing walls as well as an iron skeleton. Indeed, he would build skyscrapers later that would fall more truly into the iron-skeletoned buildings of the future, helping to forge what we all know today as the Chicago School of Architecture. (It’s the best and only school of architecture, clearly.)

Leiter II Building, by Zol87Wikimedia Commons.

The Second Leiter Building marks what Gerald Larson calls “the beginning of the true high point of Jenney’s practice,” an era in which Jenney, fully at the helm of his architecture firm, was both constructing a lot of buildings and innovating with each one.13 The Chicago School, in which form always follows function, was born, and reaching higher with each day. One simple example of Jenney’s evolution as an architect lies in the buildings above, Leiters I and II. Leiter I is almost a skyscraper…but not quite. It had, amazingly, wooden floors, and, as my notes tell me, was “only half fireproofed,” and thus “only three and a half parts skyscraper.”14 While you can’t visit the wood-floored Leiter I, Leiter II is still there, a part of Robert Morris College. It’s all the way fireproof, state of the art nineteenth-century technology which influences us to this day. (I resent the absence of Leiter I, but that is another issue, for another day.)

Ludington Building, 2007. Photo by TonyTheTiger, cropped by Beyond My KenWikimedia Commons.

A number of Jenney’s surviving buildings are now, perhaps appropriately, home to colleges and universities, many of them fundamentally arts-focused. (I have no idea what a guy who is sometimes considered more engineer than architect would think of this, but I guess I don’t particularly care.) The Ludington Building, above, is now one of a multitude of buildings which comprise Columbia College Chicago. Unlike so many of Jenney’s Chicago buildings, the Ludington has had pretty good luck in surviving, perhaps because the original family owned it until the ’60s. Columbia College is, rightfully, very proud of the building. I could point out a lot of things I like about it, and a lot of revolutionary things–it’s all terracotta wrapped! it’s beautiful! look at the atmospheric fire escapes! look at those amazing Chicago School windows!–but I feel like it can rather well speak for itself.

39 South LaSalle (aka New York Life Insurance Buliding–he had a thing for insurance I guess). photo by TonyTheTiger, cropped by Beyond My Ken, and housed on Wikimedia Commons.

The building above is another tenacious survivor. The New York Life Insurance Building was, at the time of its construction, super-duper techy and new-fangled, the first of its kind entirely “supported by an internal skeleton of metal” in place of those thick load-bearing walls of the past. It, like so many others, has come in danger of the wrecking ball, but, for now, it’s safe: following a well-reviewed renovation, bringing out the inherent beauty of the structure itself, it is now the Gray Hotel. You, too, can go for a drink in an old Jenney building, and look at the structure while you do. (If you have the moolah you can also go for a stay in the hotel.)

The Manhattan Building, on the corner. 2006 photo by JeremyAWikimedia Commons.

Both City of the Century and The Great Builders point to the building in the photo above, the Manhattan, at the corner of Congress and Dearborn, as Jenney’s definitive crowning glory, the moment all the pieces he’d been putting into place came resoundingly together.15 I will confess that the evidently revolutionary Manhattan Building has been a part of the backdrop of my life for as long as I can remember–there used to be instrument shops in one of the buildings next to it, and it’s quite near the Harold Washington Library. Like many of the old Chicago School buildings, it holds its age elegantly, and continues to serve its public, a gracious, light-filled old highrise that once was a skyscraper.

Manhattan Building. 2010 photo by J. CrockerWikimedia Commons.

Now, some folks dispute Jenney’s honorable stance as the father of the (American) skyscraper. They offer his glory to other people, even other cities.16 Sullivan, the ornamentation half of Adler & Sullivan, claimed that Jenney wasn’t an architect at all, but rather an engineer,17 which has always seemed to me a singularly unpleasant–and indeed flagrantly inaccurate–assessment of Jenney’s skill. (Donald Miller, in City of the Century, argues that Jenney was “one of the outstanding innovators in the history of building technology,” a man who believed beauty flowed through the structure itself–which seems to me an excellent judgement of Jenney’s importance to modern architecture.) Maybe Sullivan was jealous? He was not, after all, half the engineer that either Jenney or his partner Dankmar Adler were. The guy was indeed an engineer, as many a good architect is; he was also an architect. One can, after all, be both.

19 South LaSalle. 2012 photo by TonyTheTigerWikimedia Commons.

But Jenney was more than simply a brilliant engineer and architect, or even a founding father of the Chicago School of Architecture. Instead, he mentored the great architects of Chicago, including Daniel Burnham, the future Holabird & Roche, and the evidently ungrateful Louis Sullivan.18 He partook of the culture of Chicago, from high culture to pop culture and encouraged others to do the same,19 a decision which, I do not doubt, better enabled him–and the architects of the Chicago School–to design for their city’s unique needs. As Miller20 tells us, none other than the great Daniel Burnham laid credit for those great feats of fireproofed engineering and art at Jenney’s feet. Jenney’s mentorship of the great Chicago School architects makes him well and truly the progenitor of towers, for they went on to build the great skyscrapers that would enable ever taller, grander skyscrapers.

Without William Le Baron Jenney and the men he mentored, our skyline would be a whole lot different. Who knows? Without him, we might never have reached Aqua, or Vista. And so, today, on the anniversary of Jenney’s birth, let us celebrate his mastery by enjoying our skyline–and by working towards preservation of our historic architecture, our great gift to the world.

Horticultural Building

Jenney’s long-gone Horticultural Building, at the World’s Columbia Exposition. Photo by William Henry Jackson. Image from the Field Museum’s archival collection. Housed on Flickr.

1 Who says this? Well, lots of people say it! Blair Kamin, our Pulitzer-winning architecture critic, is the one who comes first to mindCraine’s Chicago Business says it; and so does The Unofficial Guide to Chicago. It is, in short, a part of the fabric of our communal civic soul.
2 When it was built, Aqua was the tallest skyscraper designed by a woman. It is discussed in The Guardian and The New Yorker, among others.
3 Vista Tower is currently in the construction phase. It is exciting in a hundred and one ways, about which I will write later; in the meantime, the following articles are excellent sources of information about the project (and how exciting it is):

It’s also worth noting that 1 World Trade Center’s technical director is a woman.

4 That architect was a guy named Peter Bonnett Wight, about whom we learned lots in “Origins of Commercial and Civic Architecture” (Spring 2009) and “Origins of Modern Architecture” (Fall 2008), both at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, both taught by the excellent Tim Wittman. The Ryerson & Burnham Libraries at the Art Institute of Chicago have Wight’s archive, for those interested.
5 This sounds wild, but it 100% happened.
6 This list is drawn from my notes from “Origins of Modern Architecture” and “Origins of Commercial and Civic Architecture.”
7 So, there is a surprisingly non-standardized definition of this whole height thing out there, which is why I’ve gone with “really tall,” which, obviously, is essentially meaningless. I have several written down, but they aren’t really all that tall; I’d say they fit early skyscraper definitions, but not modern ones. Emporis, which is apparently an architectural data mining firm, says a skyscraper must be “at least 100 meters,” so if you want a number, go with that.
8 According to my notes from “Origins of Modern Architecture” on 26 November 2008, the average Manhattan lot is only 20×80, while in Chicago it’s 25×125. (My professor said the Dutch didn’t know how to handle space, but the Brits and the Germans, who were settling Chicago, did. This may even have some truth to it.) This not only facilitates our skyline and our alleys but, thanks to said alleys, offers light from the back as well as the front.
9 Reuben M. Rainey, “William Le Baron Jenney and Chicago’s West Parks: From Prairies to Pleasure-Grounds,” 58-60.
10 The Chicago Park District, The City in a Garden: A Photographic History of Chicago’s Parks: West Side Park System: 1869-1900.
11 Rainey, “William Le Baron Jenney,” 62-65.
12 See this excerpt from Verbivore’s Feast.
13 Gerald R. Larson, “William Le Baron Jenney,” 138-140.
14 “Origins of Commercial and Civic Architecture,” Tim Wittman, 23 March 2009.
15 Larson, 138-139; Miller, 335.
16 In City of the Century, Donald Miller argues that the glory probably does belong, in large part, with Jenney, who synthesized and mentored the skyscraper into being (341-347). Larson isn’t so sure (136-138). I’m going with Miller and with my architecture history notes (Tim Wittman, 2008-09); this may be largely chauvinistic pride in my city, but I’m sticking with it.
17 Miller 336; Weingardt, 61.
18 Miller, 336, 342-346; Pacyga, 132-133.
19 Miller, 336.
20 Miller, 344.


Bibliography and More Reading

Haden, Erik. “William Le Baron Jenney.” Article available via the Wayback Machine.

Larson, Gerald R. “William Le Baron Jenney: Developed Chicago’s Distrinctive Skyscrapers, 1832-1907.” In The Great Builders, ed. Kenneth Powell. London: Thames & Hudson, 2011.

Leiter I Building, from Historic American Buildings Survey.

Miller, Donald L. City of the Century: The Epic of Chicago and the Making of America. 1996. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003.

Pacyga, Dominic A. Chicago: A Biography. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2009.

Plan of Chicago: A Regional Legacy. Available as a pdf.

Powell, Kenneth, editor. The Great Builders. London: Thames & Hudson, 2011.

Reuben M. Rainey, “William Le Baron Jenney and Chicago’s West Parks: From Prairies to Pleasure Grounds.” In Midwest Landscape Architecture, ed. William H. Tishler, 57-79. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000.

Tischler, William H., editor. Midwest Landscape Architecture. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000.

Weingardt, Richard G. “William Le Baron Jenney and Tung-Yen Lin.” Leadership and Management in Engineering 3(1) (2003): 61-63. pdf.

Open House Chicago 2015: Beautiful Buildings, Threatened Buildings, and Buildings that are Barely There

This weekend is the Chicago Architecture Foundation‘s Open House Chicago! Which means that, for a very little while (only two days!), one can get into a myriad of spectacular and architecturally (and historically) significant buildings–for free. It isn’t every day one can get access to any of these buildings, and I certainly recommend taking the chance to see them. It’s also perfect timing, albeit far too short–after all, we are in the thick of the Chicago Architecture Biennial, making this the perfect time to sample what Chicago has on offer, every day, all the time, with more coming nearly every day. As I’ve written before, it truly is an exciting time in Chicago architecture.

While nearly all the buildings participating in the Open House are open to all, some few are exclusive: members’ only spaces, for those lucky souls who are members of the Chicago Architecture Foundation (if you’re interested, you can find more information on joining here). Conveniently, levels of openness are clearly marked in the Open House’s brochure, available here as a downloadable, printable pdf. The Open House extends into the North Side; naturally, my domain remains the South Side (although of course I can direct you to a good instrument shop in charming Roscoe Village!), and I am quite entertained to learn that my home turf, Hyde Park, is evidently “Far South.” One wonders what they’d call Mount Greenwood,1 if Hyde Park and South Shore are so far south! Extra-super-far-south, perhaps? So far south it’s Off the Map? That Place Whose Name Shall Never Be Uttered? That Place We Never Go Because it Isn’t Really Part of the City Anyway?2

Voilà. Hyde Park isn’t far south at all. Chicago neighborhood map, from Wikimedia Commons; created by Wikipedian Peter Fitzgerald and available under a Creative Commons license.

Regardless of odd lines of demarcation, however, the Open House isn’t to be missed (except, most likely, by me). The Charnley House, designed by Louis Sullivan (without the brilliant Adler), will be open. Charnley House would be special regardless of its draftsmen, but one of them happened to be a young fellow with about a thousand kids (and a few mistresses) named Frank Lloyd Wright. As it is, Sullivan let Wright help with the house itself, far more than was normal for a draftsman, and so it is a testament to two of Chicago’s great contributions to the architectural world, Louis Sullivan (and the seed germ theory) and Frank Lloyd Wright (and organic architecture, which is almost a sidenote to the sideshow of his life). Naturally, Charnley House figures in nearly every architecture history class I’ve ever taken. In fact, it was described to those of us taking “Origins of Modern Architecture” at the School of the Art Institute as “the first modern house,” a trailblazer in every sense of the word. It is also roughly contemporary with the so-called Bootleg Houses, buildings which Wright designed, just as it sounds, on the sly, because he had so many children and a draftsman’s pay really didn’t stretch to cover them all. (And then, of course, he bolted with a mistress, but that is a tale3 for another time.)

Exterior of the elegant Sullivan Charnley House, with details by Wright. Photo c. 1900, from the Historic American Buildings Survey. Wikimedia Commons.

Naturally, the Charnely House is far from the only building to see in and about Chicago during this far-too-short Open House. (I mean, really, we’re in an Architecture Biennial—shouldn’t we make this Open House a wee bit longer?!) Several buildings in the exclusive Prairie Avenue District are open for viewing, including the McCormick Place Rooftop Farm, the Clarke House (which has probably moved more times than any other Greek Revivial house in the city of Chicago), and the Wheeler Mansion. Open House also doesn’t seem to have Glessner House on their list, which really is odd—especially since the Clarke and the Glessner are at least moderately tied (see: the Glessner’s website). And, of course, if one does visit McCormick Place, one simply must look out to the east, and see Northerly Island, on its way to becoming what Burnham and Bennett dreamed it would be, so long ago when they wrote their Plan of Chicago.

Also in the Loop, or at least rather more downtown than anywhere else, are buildings like the Civic Opera House (which is amazing! lovely piece of Deco architecture!), home of the equally amazing Lyric Opera of Chicago, which everyone should have a chance to see at least sometimes. Buildings ranging from the Palmer House to the Rookery, Tribune Tower (which is for sale 😦 apparently) to the Intercontinental Hotel, the Fine Arts Building (which has elevator operators!!) to the Aon Center, and pretty much everything in between. Once more, with feeling, as Buffy might say: this should happen more than once a year, and go for more than two days.

Rockefeller’s great and geometric rose window, in an image by Karla Kaulfuss of Flickr. Wikimedia Commons.

Heading south (though hardly into the “Far South Side,” which barely has any representation at all on the list—the closest they come appears to be Pullman), the Open House includes a number of buildings in Hyde Park, though not as many as one might expect—several churches, including the lovely little Bond Chapel (closed Saturday but open Sunday), the ultimate Prairie School building (Wright’s Robie House), the stunning Rockefeller, and even a building with which I am not all that familiar, Loewenburg & Loewenburg’s ’23 Grand Ballroom, on Cottage Grove. (It looks smashing, but since I’ve never been in, I can’t offer any more information than that.)

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View from the second floor: main area of the South Shore Cultural Center.

The South Shore Cultural Center, one of the buildings I recommended as a place to visit during Lolla this summer, is participating in Open House Chicago, and it’s ever and ever so much worth seeing. However, if it can’t be fit in, it, like Rockefeller, is always available for visitors: the South Shore Cultural Center, once a Gilded Age country club, is now part of the Chicago Park District, open to all. (It’s also the home of Chicago’s police horses, of course, so expect a police presence.) And the new Stony Island Arts Bank will also participate. There really are far too many amazing places to see; I really don’t think that the Open House should be but two days, but once a year, but I believe in access, which might be the issue. (Eventually I’ll be able to join the Chicago Architecture Foundation, but even if that means I get access, it still doesn’t resolve the issue of Chicagoans being able to get into their own cultural heritage.)

The Administration Building in Pullman, designed by Solon S. Beman (yeah, he really was S.S.). It’s still standing, although Pullman himself is well-weighted in the ground. Image by Wikipedia user Boven. Wikimedia Commons.

Despite all the glories accounted for in this year’s Open House, however, there are a number of striking absences. Remember Mount Greenwood, which I mocked so relentlessly as being Not Really Part of the City? Well, there doesn’t appear to be anything in this architectural Open House south of Pullman—and, as amazing as I consider Pullman to be (it really is incredible), it shouldn’t be the southernmost point of our Open House. That, folks, should be somewhere by the southernmost borders of the city, and Pullman isn’t even close. (Sure, it was once, but that was a very long time ago, indeed.) That said, go south, please. We aren’t the WWII Russian Front, and we’ve got a lot of lovely spaces and places, and a whole lot of history. Even if you don’t venture south of South Shore, give us a try.

It’s also worth noting that, as far as I can tell at a glance, none of this year’s Open House locations are, shall we say, endangered landmarks. In a way this makes a lot of sense—I suppose that, considering liability, it wouldn’t make sense to bring people to see what is left of the beautiful Pilgrim Baptist Church, in which gospel first rose to the rafters and about which I wrote in the late summer of this year. At the same time, I feel that this would be a perfect opportunity to highlight endangered buildings such as Pilgrim Baptist. Let the world see how beautiful it is, even in its skeletal state,4 and perhaps somehow we can pull together enough to save what is left. (Ebenezer Missionary Baptist,5 by Dankmar Adler, is on the list, and should definitely be seen—but I strongly feel that our endangered landmarks deserve to be shown as well.)

Helmut Jahn’s Thompson Center. Image by Wikipedia user Primeromundo. Wikimedia Commons.

Another endangered building does not appear on the list. Now, this one is a state building; one can get in pretty much any time, or at any rate, one could, prior to Rauner. I am unsure if this has changed: the guy loves to monetize stuff, after all, so I’d guess that if he could charge for entry, he would. It is German-American architect Helmut Jahn‘s Thompson Center, or State of Illinois Building, and it is currently endangered. Jahn, we were taught, was mocking hyped-up, jingoistic
patriotism when he conceived and created the Thompson Center, with its bright red and blue and white color scheme—so American!6 We were also told, back in our Origins of Civic and Commercial Architecture course, that the building’s vary transparency was supposed to symbolize, or maybe encourage, transparency in government.7 (I’m going to guess that the closest we’ll ever come to that is having alderpeople, because they’re directly answerable to us and we can always go yell at them. I think that’s why Chicago, in my experience, works, somehow, but the ‘burb in which I live now doesn’t.)

Faded patriotism: a section of the red, white, and blue interior of Jahn’s Thompson Center. Image by Fernando González del Cueto. Wikimedia Commons.

The building is also in desperate straits—in need of basic maintenance and basic cleaning that would make it once again a star of the Chicago skyline, even if it is rather shorter than many of our conversation pieces. And, worst of all, Blair Kamin tells us that it may be destroyed, yet another Chicago gem lost to the wrecking ball. The building deserves a second chance, and, if it must be sold, as Rauner would evidently like, at least let it be sold to someone who will, as Kamin himself urges, give it the chance it needs, and deserves.

So. It is an incredibly exciting time in Chicago architecture, although I guess it almost always is. It’s also an incredible opportunity to get inside Chicago’s architectural gems, and see them with one’s own eyes—and getting inside a building, taking the opportunity to really get to know it, should never be turned down. But as one visits buildings, and figures out which ones can be seen later, when this wild weekend is done, and which should be seen right now, remember Chicago’s endangered landmarks, buildings like Pilgrim Baptist and the Thompson Center, and give a thought to the preservation of our architecture, which is surely one of our city’s greatest ongoing contributions.


FOOTNOTES

1 I would argue that “Far South Side” is, in Chicago, going to start at South Deering, at its northernmost point, and extend down to Hegewisch, Riverdale, Beverly, Mount Greenwood, and Morgan Park. But I am a South Sider, and know it well, so my reckoning is likely quite different.
2 I don’t go there all that much either, as Mount Greenwood is a fair bit different than my normal stomping grounds of Hyde Park and southern Kenwood and the Loop…but it’s definitely there, and it is part of the city, and since S goes to college there, I do turn up. Occasionally.
3 Which is probably a tale I’ll tell, at some later time…because I’ve always been fond of scandal, and the arts offer it in spades.
4 I passed Pilgrim Baptist only three days ago, heading towards Hyde Park on MLK Drive; it is worse now by far than it was when I saw it only a month or so before: even the tarp over the roof is in decay, and the spires look as if they might fall. It breaks my heart that we are allowing such destruction to come to one of our great buildings.
5 The building is a Chicago landmark; its landmark designation report, a pdf, is available via the City of Chicago, here.
6 Origins of Civic and Commercial Architecture, Tim Wittman, School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
7 Ibid.


Naturally, a lot of other people have written about the Open House. My favorites (or the ones I’ve actually bothered to read) include the following:

State of the Cultural City: Chicago Architecture Biennial and Museum Week 2015

Fall in Chicago brings the wild Midwestern change of seasons, complete with violent, riled lake, and high winds, and days that veer impulsively from warm to chill, leaden skies to cloudless ones. The dark comes earlier and the sun seems almost to shine fiercer for its curtailed hours. The changing of the season always brings a resurgence in the arts world, from new seasons at Lyric, the Chicago SymphonyChicago Opera Theater, Hubbard Street, and the Joffrey (as well as Chicago’s theater scene, of which someday I hope to more fully partake) to new exhibits at Chicago’s museums–the Smart, for example, has recently re-opened following a summer of installations.

This fall is bringing some extra excitement–not just that of a nail-biting contract negotiation at the CSO (now resolved, as I found out from Chicago Business Journal and my mother learned from her friends on the barg team), nor of the final day coming down the pike for the Field Museum’s Vikings exhibition, but an architecture biennial, and the first (one hopes) annual Chicago Museum Week, coming up this first week of October. In other words–there’s going to be more than ever to do in Chicago this fall!

and then we built it up way better than the first time. After the great Chicago fire of 1871, corner of Dearborn and Monroe Streets. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Chicago Architecture Biennial, 2015

Chicago has always been a great architecture city,1 or, at any rate, the “Second City,” built after we burned the first one down (oops), has left its mark on cities across the world. It makes sense, then, that we’d host what is essentially a world’s expo of contemporary architecture. The Chicago Architecture Biennial, beginning on October 3 and running until January 2016, will offer a smorgasboard of programs related to contemporary architecture, from affiliated exhibitions to talks, pavilions, and more. If you like architecture–at all, in any shape–it isn’t to be missed.

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The Chicago Cultural Center, one of whose Tiffany mosaics is shown here and of which I have previously written, will host many Biennial-related events in the coming months.

The Biennial is, not surprisingly, attracting quite a bit of press: we are, after all, the Second City, which burned itself down and rose again, better than before, contributing to the world fireproofing and Chicago School and the rise of modern civic and commercial architecture, and most of us are pretty aware of it. We have torn down far too much of our patrimony, and yet we have also preserved much of it (we seem to have a thing for Meis van der Rohe, and we’re letting Pilgrim Baptist sit, a husk of a historic building). Naturally, when we do something architecture-related, we write about it–a lot. Ranging from the Trib’s Blair Kamin to Crain’s Chicago Business, everyone is discussing the Biennial. (Crain’s, understandably, hopes that we can do our architectural legacy justice through this Biennial. Naturally, I hope that we can both do it justice–and build upon it. We’re still an exciting architectural city.) Blair Kamin (still my favorite architecture critic) has written numerous articles on the Biennial, both offering his take and providing curated lists of big events and architects,2 among others.

Burnham and Bennett’s Plan for Chicago, including Northerly Island (sans Meigs Field). 1909. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

The Architecture Biennial comes at what is already an exciting time for Chicago architecture. The future Obama Presidential Library will come, as it were, home to the South Side; a selection process for architects is already underway (and has pulled in bids from lot of architects, as well as good commentary from Kamin). The former Meigs Field is once again Northerly Island, which is incredibly exciting on both an architecture/landscape architecture and an environmental level: we’ve got beautifully designed open space once more, and Chicago’s rather vibrant community of wild beasts, ranging from birds to intrepid urban coyotes,3 get another space to live. The ever exciting (and innovative) Studio Gang, headed up by Jeanne Gang, has buildings going up throughout the city, including City Hyde Park, beautiful even in its unfinished state.4 (Every time I drive by I take another few pictures of its emerging balconies–I think it would be a pretty amazing place to live, myself, though most likely I’d never be able to afford it.) For those interested, Gang has written about social connectivity, architecture, and high-rises–a fascinating topic on its own merit, and even more so for those of us from cities, and those of us who work with communities. Theaster Gates is reviving the beautiful and long-abandoned Stony Island Bank, now the Stony Island Arts Banks–I nearly cried when I realized that it really was being restored, and would not be torn down. Oh, and we’re going to get the Lucas museum. Eventually. 😛 (The redesign5 has recently been unveiled–not quite as overwhelming as it was last time, at any rate. But you can rest assured that we Chicagoans will critique it, whatever it turns out to be–and however much we end up loving it. We ❤ our architecture.)

Museum Week

But the Architecture Biennial is far from the only massive cultural exhibition in town: this upcoming week, from October 1 through October 7, Chicago’s museums will put on the first Museum Week Chicago, offering everything from discounted admission (take advantage of it!) to even more exhibits. It looks to me to be an amazing opportunity–well-known giants including the Art Institute, the Field Museum, the Shedd, the Adler, the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, Hyde Park’s Museum of Science and Industry, and the Lincoln Park Zoo will team up with lesser-known Chicago gems including the DuSable (I’ve mentioned it a few times), the National Museum of Puerto Rican Arts and Culture in Humboldt Park, the National Museum of Mexican Art in Pilsen, the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum in Lincoln Park, and the Chicago History Museum (formerly the Chicago Historical Society), also in Lincoln Park.

The depth and breadth of Museum Week’s offerings, all tied up in twelve museums, is hard to overemphasize. They range from science museums (and a zoo) to spaces of art, culture, and history, and they tell the story of a city and the folks who live there. Did you know, for instance, that Chicago’s Puerto Rican community stretches back to the mid-20th century, if not earlier? For that matter, while you’re in Humboldt Park to see the National Museum of Puerto Rican Arts and Culture, drop by Paseo Boricua, traditionally the heart of Chicago’s Puerto Rican community. It’s very much a part of the city worth knowing better.

I have written a few times about the DuSable Museum of African-American History, homage both to Jean-Baptise DuSable and to Chicago’s historic African-American population. Naturally, I think you should take advantage of Museum Week to see what should really not be a lesser-known museum. And, of course, if you’re prepared for some walking, you could make a day of it, visiting the Museum of Science and Industry, the Oriental Institute, the Smart Museum, and the DuSable…all in once day! (You might have some museum-induced form of shellshock afterwards, but you would have seen a lot of super cool stuff!)

The National Museum of Mexican Art also showcases an old, vibrant, and evolving Chicago community. Mexicans began coming to Chicago in numbers in the 1920s, though, as this article notes, immigration ramped up somewhat in the 1960s. I’m ashamed to say I have not gone often to the National Museum of Mexican Art–but the times I have gone are unforgettable. The museum, while small, is, in a word, amazing. It’s bright and colorful and stuffed with information, usually in both English and Spanish. You’re covered whether you are an English or a Spanish speaker, which is, I think, as it should be. And did I mention that it’s really cool? They even do awesome exhibits on Día de los Muertos, which, of course, I love. This year, they’ll be hosting a celebration of Día de los Muertos in the city of Chicago–although it comes well after Museum Week, it’ll be worth a return trip, for sure.

A very, very pretty train at the Chicago History Museum. South Side Elevated Railroad car 1, built 1892. On display at the Chicago History Museum. Image by Wikipedian JeremyA and housed on Wikimedia Commons.

The Chicago History Museum (which I visited often, way back when it was the Chicago Historical Society) is a great space. It has some random Historic Chicago streets, all dolled up to look like the days of gas lights, and some trains to get into, and a rotating cast of exhibitions, and it really does tell Chicago’s story, from its beginnings to the present. (Its archives are also worth a look, if you’re interested in that sort of thing.) Interested in railroads?  Disability rights? Vivian Maier? Civil rights? Objects and their histories? Boy, has the Chicago History Museum got stuff for you. And, like every other cultural institution participating in Museum Week, it’s in a nice location.

There is so much going on in Chicago–and elsewhere–right now, but if you are bound for the city, Museum Week and the Chicago Architecture Biennial are more than worth seeing. Use the opportunity to go somewhere new, or somewhere old and well-loved; learn a little more about the state of contemporary architecture, or see a few more museums. There’s so much worth seeing, out there, and Museum Week and the Architecture Biennial will pull things together (and in some ways make them more accessible), at least for a little.


1 This is probably pulled almost verbatim from my architecture history classes with Tim Wittman at SAIC, although I’d have to comb through notes to be sure.
2 Whether due to communication issues or other problems, the floating stage/music boat Point-Counterpoint II has not yet been given permission to dock and perform. Regardless of one’s fondness for brass, it seems like it has a place in an architecture Expo. Kamin goes into greater depth in his article, available here.
3 Apparently city coyotes, like city folks, get around a lot–more, in fact, than their suburban counterparts! And they even look both ways before crossing the road, as DNAInfo tells us in this article. If you’ve a yen for more urban coyote research (and who doesn’t?), there is actually an Urban Coyote Research institute out there. Have a ball!
4 I would only point out that I do not recall the strip mall was actually underused; I have no doubt that by the time Studio Gang was brought in, however, it most likely wasn’t used at all. And I think that the building will be a tremendous addition, architecturally and aesthetically, to Hyde Park.
5 I am actually strongly in favor of the Lucas Museum coming to Chicago; I am in favor of just about anything that will increase tourism, and bring people and money to the city. I am not in favor of a gigantic thing sitting on the lakefront, and I am concerned about traffic–surely, though, we can figure out ways to lessen the impact of a couple million more cars in an already congested place. More public transit, anyone?

(More) Things to Do in Chicago During Lolla, 2015

If one is in town for Lollapalooza 2015, one’s schedule is probably already jam-packed with, well, Lolla. One may even be going to see Florence + The Machine…and, well, I wish I were going to see Florence and the Machine too. Lucky you, and make sure you take sunscreen, because skin cancer sucks.

But maybe one who is in town for Lolla would like to see more than just one small part of Grant Park. In that case, let me add my suggestions to the clamor of voices already offering pointers. There is so much to see and do here; while there’s no way to do it all in one weekend, while also taking in Lolla itself, an assortment of things would, I think, add spice to anyone’s trip.

The Art Institute of Chicago will be offering discounts to Lolla attenders who show their wristbands. Since this goes all the way through September, hang onto those wristbands for $2 off admission. (Or be an Illinois resident and go on free day, if you don’t have a membership.) As always, the AIC has amazing art on display, all the time. They are also running (as usual) several impressive special and/or traveling exhibits, including one on Degas’s sports and dance themed art and a small, incredible exhibition of Andean art from the Spanish-American Colonial period. (It’s amazing. Really. And I’ll be writing on it eventually, most likely.)

The Field Museum, much like the AIC, always has something incredible. I love the Ancient Americas, and the Hall of Jades, both of which are permanent exhibits. Since I last visited, new permanent exhibits have opened up–and, of course, the Field has some amazing travelers as well, including one on Vikings. I’m quite sure it’s a good fit with Vikings, although there will be no creepy-eyed Ragnar watching us all. And, for those more interested in the science-heavy, the Field has a lot to share.

For a brief digression out-of-town into the surrounding ‘burbs, anyone stoked at the idea of the Hall of Jades should check out the Lizzardo Museum of Lapidary Art, in Elmhurst near Elmhurt College. The museum is small, beautifully sized for a quick trip…that will probably turn into a longer one than anticipated. Its collections are magical, from the rocks in the basement to the petrified wood outside and the castle made entirely of precious stones inside, right down to its tiny canon and its waterfalls. (My brother S loved that castle. I loved pretty much everything.)

The Museum of Contemporary Photography, connected to Columbia College Chicago, is on Michigan Avenue a few blocks south of the AIC. It is small, with varied collections; for anyone interested in photography, it is a must-see. The Adler Planetarium and the Shedd Aquarium, meanwhile, are on the very same peninsula, right around the Field Museum. The Adler is a really cool space, and the architecture is awesome–I love how a thoroughly modern addition has been melded to the original tholos-shaped, very classic, building. So go see it for both the planets and the architecture, because it’s all so cool. And the Shedd, of course, has something for all interests…and a whole lot of really good science in with the dolphin shows.

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Detail of a Tiffany dome, Chicago Cultural Center.

There is so much downtown that it is impossible to touch on everything. However, both Millennium Park (though perhaps overexposed) and the new Maggie Daley Park are very worth a visit–even if said visit only includes a quick stroll (with a camera, one hopes). Take a spin along the lakefront, downtown or in Hyde Park (or South Shore, or wherever), because it is magnificent. And, if you’re downtown, drop by the Chicago Cultural Center, once upon a time the main library, and see mosaics by Tiffany! All over! As well as whatever cool things are currently being showcased, ranging from performing arts to visual arts to old radios. The place is a veritable treasure trove. And oh those mosaics…. (For that matter, when wandering down Michigan, take a moment to look at Solon Beman‘s Fine Arts Building, and at Adler and Sullivan’s Auditorium Building, the home of Roosevelt University…which is also my alma mater.)

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57th Street Books: always look at the display windows, because they are AWESOME.

Now, as a Hyde Parker and a South Sider I am honor-bound to recommend the South Side (and Hyde Park). Hyde Park is filled with awesome bookstores (I practically grew up in 57th Street Books), a world-renowned university, and a lot of museums. Normally I would urge any and all to visit the Smart Museum of Art, in many ways my “first” art museum. Unfortunately, it’s closed this summer for collection moving. The Oriental Institute, complete with its problematic and awkward name from the turn of the last century, is open–and it is amazing. Largely a research museum, the Oriental Institute is small, with great depth. It is also the home of fragments of the magnificent Yelda Khorsabad Court, including the mighty lamassu, or human-headed-bull; a section of an edition of the Egyptian Book of the Dead and a gargantuan statue of King Tut; a still-bright fragment of the Gates of Babylon (yes! really!); and everything from ancient games to tax documents and steles. (Si prefiere Ud. leer información sobre el museo en español, se puede aquí.) It’s totally worth a visit…and it’s easily accessible by bus, car, or train, and is right by Rockefeller Chapel, with its awesome carvings of scholars over the lintels. (The stained glass windows are pretty rad too: they are mostly geometric shapes, and wow the colors.) If you’re interested in more hidden chapels, check out Bond, buried inside the Quad. It’s tiny, and definitely worth checking out as a hidden architectural gem on the U of C’s striking campus. (It’s also often in use for weddings.)

Hyde Park is also home to the Museum of Science and Industry, on the grounds of Frederick Law Olmsted‘s Jackson Park. If you’re interested in art and landscape architecture history, this was the home of the World’s Columbian Exposition–and there was all manner of drama around the park’s inception and creation, including a long spat over the now-destroyed Ho-o-den Temple. For that matter, if you’ve ever read Devil in the White City, I think you’ll want to pay the area a visit. The Museum of Science and Industry itself was once the Palace of Fine Arts, the only building built to withstand fire. (You’d think we Chicagoans would have learned why that was important before our World’s Expo….)

Frank Lloyd Wright’s ultimate Prairie-style home, the Robie House, named for a family who lived there only briefly, is also in Hyde Park, at the corner of Woodlawn and 58th. (If you are unfamiliar with Hyde Park, it is close to absolutely everything else in Hyde Park and is easily accessible by train, bus, or car. You might have to hike a bit from your parking space, but what’s life in the city without a good walk?) While we architecture nerds might be most excited by the House, I like to think that it is interesting for anyone. It’s definitely a lovely space…although, cave dweller that I am, I would not want to live such a window-coveringless life.

The DuSable Museum of African American History, while not technically in Hyde Park, is pretty much right here as well. It’s in the Washington Park neighborhood, which is…beside another park by Olmsted! It’s also a couple of blocks from the street on which I grew up, and quite close to the Mansueto Library, which is a very interesting piece of civil architecture. The DuSable is currently running an exhibition on Chicago’s first (and only) African-American mayor, Harold Washington, as well as exhibits on African-American military service and the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, among other exhibits. So, go to Hyde Park, check out all the fabulous things there…and then come on over to Washington Park, wave at the wreckage of my torn-down neighborhood, and visit DuSable.

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low-res shot of the South Shore Cultural Center, taken from the second floor

Go further south, and one finds South Shore, and in it a gem of Gilded-Age Chicago: the old South Shore Country Club, today the South Shore Cultural Center. The place is stunningly beautiful, and masively historic. We also have some very cool trivia: it was the location of Barack and Michelle Obama’s wedding. It is a totally fabulous location for a wedding, too. Excellent taste. The space is also used for concerts (my mother has performed there), as well as other civic events. The grounds host everything from Chicago’s police horses to an open golf course, a stretch of lake, and some native plantings. For those interested in Gilded Age architecture, or simply in seeing a really lovely building in an area of Chicago that is not as well known as it ought to be, it is very much worth a visit.

This is an almost absurdly truncated list of things one may do, while visiting Chicago for Lolla. It is also very, very much centered on the South Side, even though I can totally recommend things on the North Side! Probably even a whole dozen things! (Well, likely more, including instrument repair places. Go to A440, you guys.) The Chicago Trib has written up an article about need-to-knows before going to Lolla, Chicago’s emergency plans (isn’t there always a storm?), and news about wireless coverage, which is also good to know. They have also put together a cool list of tours to take in the Chicago area, which I am going to plug here. After all, they include Second City and the Chicago Architecture Foundation, so hooray! Totally worth checking out. (Unfortunately I think that many of these articles are behind paywalls–check to see if you can access them for free at your local public or academic library.) Finally, if you’re wondering how the heck to pay for the AIC and the Field and the Skydeck and the Adler…look into CityPass! Depending on your needs, and on the places and times you plan to visit, it would likely prove very helpful. (It also spares you some of the lines.)

So, have a wonderful (and safe) time at Lolla…and try to take some time away from it, to see just a little of what Chicago has to offer.

…they haven’t torn down all the old buildings yet

Last week I visited Pittsburgh for the first time. It was exciting and terrifying, a combination of business (an interview) and pleasure (a visit to family whom I have not, alas, seen in over a decade). I flew rather than roadtripped for the first time, discovering it was rather like an Amtrak train in the sky, and found that Midway is very much a Chicago airport, while Pittsburgh International is a mall that happens to have runways attached. (I don’t like malls, but was sufficiently out of my element to be more amused than annoyed at the spectacle, and at the odd statues of a Revolutionary War-era dude and a football player dotting the escalators–of which, of course, there were way too many. I did like the dinosaur, although I’m still confused by the coins thrown into its enclosure, which is what happens when one doesn’t get close enough to read labels.)

an old photograph of the station’s vaulting, taken sometime after 1933 by an employee of the Historic American Buildings Survey. Photo available on Wikimedia Commons.

While bumping along with one of my marvelous cousins D (this one looks like S, if S were a little shorter, a little older, and had short curly hair rather than long wavy hair), I got to talking about the buildings of Pittsburgh. There are some really cool buildings, and I am passionately fond of cool buildings. It’s why I focused on architecture when working on my art history degree. My aunt and uncle drove me through downtown Pittsburgh, past the stunning Pittsburgh Union Station, originally designed by none other than my old frenemy Daniel Burnham. I fully intended to walk past and take a thousand and one pictures of the building, including its lacy stone canopies and stunning vistas–but it’s amazing how hard it is to get sightseeing in, when one is in town for business, and wearing heels. (I am both clumsy and a jock, which lends itself ill to heels.) My relations took me to a restaurant in the Strip neighborhood for dinner, leading to hilarity: I, naturally, assumed that anything with the name “Strip” in it must have some, well, Magic Mike characters on display or something. (It’s just a strip of a neighborhood, apparently, not a dive.) Then, as we rolled past buildings towards the hotel, my cousin D noted that in Pittsburgh, unlike many cities, they haven’t torn down all the old buildings yet. D approves. He likes old architecture.

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View of H.H. Richardson’s courthouse/jail, with newer buildings in the background.
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A tower in H.H. Richardson’s very Romanesque courthouse and jail, Pittsburgh.

I straddle an odd line, preservationist and passionate fan of the postmodern. I love Adler and Sullivan and that hussy Frank Lloyd Wright–and I love Studio Gang. (I really love Studio Gang.) I have been known to cry over demolitions, and to salivate at new construction. A bundle of contradictions, I am, and my goodness I hope that Pittsburgh continues to see the value in maintaining its old architecture, even as it builds new and exciting (and green!) buildings to fit its changing face. And Pittsburgh has old buildings aplenty, ranging from the gracious houses of my aunt and uncle’s neighborhood to buildings like Union Station and, to my joy, H.H. Richardson’s Alleghany County Courthouse and Jail. I’m pretty sure, as I told D., that every student of 19th century or Romanesque architecture in the country has studied that building. It was incredibly exciting to look at it–even if, by the time I trudged close, my feet hurt too much to actually wander around and seek good vantage points from which to take hundreds of pictures of architectural detailing. According to James O’Gorman, H.H. Richardson, Louis Sullivan, and Frank Lloyd Wright are our American trinity of architects¹, and it’s a glorious thing to see any of their work in person.

Chicago, somewhat like me, straddles its own uneasy line. The birthplace of modern architecture, it has torn down many early buildings–though, thankfully, many remain. (There are even tales of a curse placed on whatever building occupies the land that was once the old Chicago Stock Exchange, supposedly placed by a friend of Richard Nickel, killed during the demolition. However, these were ghost stories told to architecture history students, and are likely impossible to verify.) We tend to maintain Meis van der Rohe’s buildings², of which I am not the greatest fan, while ripping down others. (The neighborhood in Hyde Park in which I grew up is entirely gone now, replaced by sterile science buildings. Here’s a parting glass, I suppose, to my childhood spent spying on science postdocs and astrophysicists and paleontologists while playing Chicago Bulls. It was a magic time.)

Downtown Pittsburgh looked, to me, like a magical place of buildings old and new, a cavernous space carved out of the hills. It’s a space I’d like to explore more fully, along with the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council‘s downloadable guide to Pittsburgh art. The mixture of old and new, and my cousin D’s comment that they haven’t torn down all the old buildings yet, brought a recent string of Chicago Trib articles about the Pilgrim Baptist Church in Chicago into stark relief. Adler and Sullivan’s Pilgrim Baptist was originally built for the Kehilath Anshe Ma’ariv Synagoge in the early 1890s. By 1921 it was Pilgrim Baptist.³ And, as Pilgrim Baptist and the musical home of the former bluesman Thomas Dorsey, it was the birthplace of gospel music.Since the building was almost completely destroyed by fire in 2006, the second of Sullivan’s buildings to go up that year,5 those of us not lucky enough to have performed or attended Pilgrim Baptist can only imagine how glorious gospel must have sounded in that church, with Adler’s brilliant acoustical engineering setting the stage for perfection. (If anyone wants a glimpse of Adler’s brilliance, the Auditorium Theatre is incredible–not only are the sight lines excellent, but the acoustics are amazing.)

When one loves architecture, and believes in preservation (and in honoring the legacies of the musicians who birthed gospel at Pilgrim Baptist), one’s heart rather breaks to read an article such as Meredith Rodriguez’s “Hope fades for restoring Pilgrim Baptist Church,” which ran the day I came back to Chicago. Since 2006 the church has remained a fragment of itself, barely more than its stone foundations. It is, as Rodriguez notes, nearly a decade since the fire, which seems to me to have been only yesterday. It is long past time for us to save one of our city’s landmarks. But how to save it? Is it even possible to return the building to its heights of Adler-enabled acoustical genius?

Pilgrim Baptist, back in the day (or in 1964). Photo by Harold Allen of the Historic American Buildings Survey. Available on Wikimedia Commons.

Even if we cannot bring it back to Adler’s original acoustical splendor,6 I want to see that building restored. Possibilities are floating fast and furious, from a park within the buttressed husks of the church’s original limestone walls to a restored building memorializing Chicago’s hand in the birth of gospel. Blair Kamin, always practical (which is, to be sure, one of the reasons he is such a good architectural critic), has another suggestion: have Chicago-area architectural students do the work, as a sort of work-study (or maybe an internship). We certainly have architectural schools aplenty in the area, and it seems as if such an idea could stand to benefit everyone. Best of all, were Pilgrim Baptist restored–or perhaps both restored and marketed as a museum to Thomas Dorsey and Pilgrim Baptist’s role in gospel, as well as to Bronzeville itself–the building could bring tourists (and their money) to Bronzeville, and Chicago’s South Side.

In some ways, Chicago and Pittsburgh are very different, in others similar: both are (or were) essentially Rust Belt cities, tenacious and pugnacious and grand. (S will tell you Pittsburgh is cute, Chicago is grand, and the only city in the Midwest.) One never knows if Pittsburgh will eventually decide to start taking down its grand old buildings, which would be a tragedy. Chicago’s buildings are among its greatest birthrights, one of its shining gifts to the world (you’re welcome, world): after we burned ourselves down in 1871, the same day as the small town of Peshtigo went up in flames, we came back bigger and better than ever before, the Second City that was second to none. Pilgrim Baptist was one of the buildings that rose to greet the bigger, huskier, ever more brawling city, and it went on to serve as the cradle of gospel music. It deserves to be remembered, and to remain. However it’s done, whatever must be done, I hope that time does not run out for Pilgrim Baptist Church.


¹ I would argue for more than a trinity, and for more diversity. On the other hand, I’m oddly gleeful that Daniel Burnham isn’t included, so shouldn’t gripe too much.

² We did tear down one: a building on IIT campus which the Chicago Tribune’s architecture critic Blair Kamin describes as a “squat brick hut.” I’d argue his description was accurate.

³ Pinder, “Painting the Gospel Blues.” 77.

4 Pider, “Painting the Gospel Blues,” 77. Kamin, “Creative solutions needed…,” 27 July 2015. Reich, “The Birth of Gospel Music.” Reich, “Spotlight on Chicago’s legendary South Side, ” 2001. Rodriguez, “Hope fades…,” 2015.

5 Keegan, “Louis Sullivan’s Annus Horriblus,” 2006.

Yes! I confess–I love Adler’s contributions! You go, Adler, the lesser-known but never lesser!


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